by Harry B. Chase, Jr.*

Have you ever feasted on fiddleheads in the spring? I like mine served hot with a chunk of fast melting butter on top.

Have you sampled the dry, sweet and tasty potato-like roots of the ground-nut, the exotic looking plant with crumpled brown and lavender flowers? How about the other Great Woods delicacies? Blueberries , sassafras or black birch tea, watercress, delicate syrup from half-decayed sugar maples. . . . I could name 146 trees and shrubs and 117 plants that the red man and colonials employed for food, drink, tonics, medicines, tobacco, insect repellants, paint, inks, poisons and dyes.

Our early physicians knew wild plants that possessed 31 specific medicinal properties and used them in treatment of 229 ailments, from delirium tremens to the common cold. Burdock root was used for boils, bugleweed for consumption, pennyroyal for a stimulant, Joe-Pyeweed for typhus fever, and 18 different plants were and still are employed in cough syrups.

Take the willow, for example. Aspirin was derived 70 years ago from a salicylate contained in willow bark. Hypocrites, the father of medicine, used a derivative of willow bark 2400 years ago to ease the pain of childbirth. Our great-grandfathers wrapped their aching joints with flannel soaked in willow extract.

And consider the poisons along with the cures. A chunk of water hemlock root the size of a walnut will kill a cow. This parsley-like plant, with its cousin, the poison hemlock, which kills by paralyzing the lungs, thrives in swamps around Mansfield and Foxboro.

Pink Lady’s Slipper
Timing is everything to these these beauties.
 Mid to end of May is best.
(photo by Lou Andrews)

Just as lethal is the. white, harmless-looking amanita or destroying angel mushroom, a delayed-action killer which takes effect 18 hours after eating.

There are more palatable delicacies found in the region. Dandelion and elderberry wine, jellies made from tangy wild grapes, barberry or apple and barberry mixed. There is no end to these delights cat-tail pollen pancakes, elderflower waffles, young milkweed stalks on toast and burdock stems in batter, washed down with black birch beer or sumac lemonade.

It is said that a man lost in our woods could live on natural foods for months. This would depend upon the time of year and the man, of course, but if he knew what to look for his chances of survival would soar.

Although modern lads are squeamish about sampling things, I once cured a teen-ager’s bellyache with a belt of hot black birch and checkerberry leaf tea. And as for myself, while waiting to be apprehended for practicing medicine without a license, I think I’ll take a cup of mad-dog skullcap to quiet my nerves! 

Of the many varieties of mushrooms in the Great Woods over 10 are deadly poisonous. You should not eat any variety of mushroom you find in the wild, unless you are an experienced mushroom-hunter.

*Mr. Chase has camped, hunted, surveyed, mapped and observed plant and animal life in the Great Woods for over 60 years.